On April 26, in Joseph A. Singleton v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, the Kentucky Supreme Court held that a traffic checkpoint set up for the general purpose of enforcing a city ordinance is unconstitutional in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

To raise revenue, the City of Liberty passed an ordinance requiring all residents and employees obtain a “city sticker” to display on their vehicles. In an effort to enforce the ordinance, city police officers set up a traffic checkpoint. At the checkpoint, each vehicle was stopped by a police officer and drivers without stickers were given a warning.

Why was this city-imposed checkpoint unconstitutional? The Court began its analysis by reviewing case law on the constitutionality of traffic checkpoints in general. It noted the purpose of the Fourth Amendment to protect “privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions by governmental officials.” While the Court admitted that brief traffic checkpoints made without individualized suspicion may be constitutional, it confirmed that those circumstances are limited to times when the governmental need is sufficiently important. The circumstances include:

  • Certain checkpoints designed to insure border security and intercept aliens.
  • A roadblock set up to verify drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations.
  • A sobriety checkpoint aimed at removing drunk drivers from the road.
  • An information-seeking highway checkpoint stopping vehicles to request public assistance in solving a recent, specifically identified crime that occurred on the same highway.

It also observed that even when a traffic stop is established for a valid purpose, it must be reasonable to overcome a constitutional challenge. However, the Court did not have to reach the reasonableness of the Liberty checkpoint because it found it lacked a valid purpose.

In reaching its decision, the Court relied upon City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S.32, 37-38 (Ky. 2000). In Edmond, the United States Supreme Court condemned a traffic checkpoint set up for general crime control (specifically for drug violations) as a violation of the Fourth Amendment right to privacy. Applying the reasoning in Edmond to these facts, the Court found, “the rational underpinning of Edmond is in no way lessened when the roadblock is used to detect violations of a city ordinance rather than a felony or misdemeanor. The threat to individual liberty is the same.” As a result, the Court held a checkpoint to enforce a city ordinance is a constitutional violation just the same as one created to control crime.

Finally, the Court rejected the Commonwealth’s argument that traffic checkpoints designed to verify compliance with vehicle registration and operator licensing laws which have no impact upon highway safety are also constitutional. It held that checkpoints monitoring these kinds of laws, to be valid, must be rationally related to the need for highway safety.

In sum, city checkpoints set up for the purpose of enforcing a city ordinance are unconstitutional. In order to be constitutional, a checkpoint must have a valid purpose and be reasonable. A traffic checkpoint to monitor the laws regarding vehicle licensing and operation is valid only if rationally related to the need for highway safety.

Joseph A. Singleton v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, 59 K.L.Summ. 4 (April 30, 2012)